Ontario authorizes exploratory drilling by Noront in Ring of Fire despite Attawapiskat objections

Province, mining firm forge ahead with early exploration as debate continues over regional environmental study

Ring of Fire

Noront's Esker Camp in the Ring of Fire. Photo: Noront/Facebook

The Ontario government has issued Noront Resources eight mineral exploration permits in the metal-rich Ring of Fire region, garnering objections and a warning from the James Bay Cree community of Attawapiskat.

Noront can now use existing trails to bring in a drill with a bulldozer, according to one permit. Where there are no trails, the permit says Noront plans to fly in heavy machinery via helicopter to begin testing for minerals.

Authorization was granted only one day after a Feb. 24 court ruling said Ontario’s failure to properly consult Attawapiskat before issuing past permits was “corrosive of reconciliation,” while the conduct of mining firm Juno, recipient of those permits, “was an affront” to that goal.

This time, the provincial ministry of Northern Development and Mines insists it approved exploratory drilling and geophysical surveying “following a lengthy process of consultation” with the remote First Nation and other potentially impacted ones.

“The Director of Exploration took steps to ensure that concerns raised by or on behalf of the First Nation were appropriately considered and addressed, including through terms and conditions incorporated into the permits,” the ministry said in a March 10 statement to APTN News.

But Attawapiskat continued to raise objections in a March 7 letter to the exploration director, Scott Burgess. The letter said no mining activity, exploratory or otherwise, should occur until a First Nations-led probe has studied the potential environmental impacts across the entire 5,000-square-kilometre Ring of Fire tract.

“Attawapiskat First Nation is aware that the western worldview in which you operate has great difficulty understanding cumulative impacts because it is too linear and fragmented and fails to consider the lands in a holistic and circular manner, as we do,” wrote Chief David Nakogee. “However, your difficulty in understanding our perspective is not an excuse to fail to address our concerns.”

Debate continues over regional assessment

In recent weeks, the battle has ratcheted up over what the provincial government and metal-extraction firms cast as a possible modern-day gold rush. Except the target isn’t gold but vast subterranean stores of chromite, nickel, copper, titanium-vanadium and more.

It’s billed as a potential multi-billion-dollar economic bonanza that would create jobs, establish a smelting plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and contribute to a nascent electric vehicle manufacturing industry.

But the prized minerals all lie beneath Treaty 9 territory, which covers a substantial chunk of northern Ontario including the entire Hudson Bay coast.

Attawapiskat and others have repeatedly asserted their treaty rights and inherent jurisdiction over the area, pointing out that the Omushkegowuk, also known as the Swampy Cree, have been the only people to inhabit and use the territory from time immemorial.

“We Omushkegowuk have knowledge and wisdom borne of millenia of being in here in this part of the world, of caring for these lands,” Nakogee said in a March 2 letter to federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. “This wisdom tells us we are all part of one whole, and each part depends on the others for sustained survival.”

Watch two chiefs discuss their concerns:

The letter was filed with the federal Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, of which Guilbeault is the political master. The agency received mixed reviews when it released its draft terms of reference for the proposed regional assessment on Dec. 2, 2021.

The draft terms propose to strike a five-member, federal-provincial joint committee to conduct the probe. The committee would not have representation from First Nations governments and only be mandated to seek knowledge and perspectives from Indigenous people.

Five Treaty 9 chiefs immediately condemned the proposal and said it should be shredded and rewritten, prompting the assessment agency to solicit more submissions. Not all of them were opposed.

Webequie First Nation — which has proposed to build a road that would connect its territory with the Ring of Fire and the provincial highway network — said it supports the goals and scope of the regional assessment as described in the draft terms.

Impacts ‘difficult to reliably predict’

Complicating things further is the climate crisis and the substantial uncertainty about environmental ripple effects. The vast swathe of boggy peatland surrounding James Bay is a globally significant carbon sink that sequesters greenhouse gas, according to climate scientists.

First Nations call the area the Breathing Lands, or “the world’s lungs.”

The Ring of Fire is also situated directly in the middle of an eastern migratory caribou roaming range, according to Environment Canada. Every year, this herd moves west from the coast to winter inland, where caribou breed before returning.

Ottawa said the caribou “may be particularly vulnerable” to development because the entire area constitutes their habitat.

However, “the impacts of future development in the region are difficult to reliably predict” due to factors like its remote location, the complexity of the development and the diversity of the ecosystems, the department said.

Ring of Fire
The proposed area dubbed the Ring of Fire sits 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay, Ont. Map: APTN News

Last spring, echoing these concerns, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga declared a moratorium on Ring of Fire mining unless their demands are met. Attawapiskat Chief Nakogee, in his letter to Ontario, suggested more action could come.

“While Canadian laws may be too weak to effectively deal with the issues described in this letter and its attached, natural laws and Indigenous laws are not, and they will,” he wrote Burgess.

Attawapiskat sued both Juno and Ontario for judicial review of the bungled consultation effort, which began in January 2020.

That’s when Juno first emailed Attawapiskat proposing dialogue about proposed exploration. The company then refused to answer Attawapiskat’s emails, according to the court record. The First Nation’s repeated requests to strike a deal went unanswered for five months.

Juno’s email, a panel of divisional court judges said, gave the impression consultation had been downloaded to the private corporation, when in fact it had not.

The failure to communicate only became clear when Attawapiskat wrote to Ontario in late August. A few days later, Ontario replied telling Attawapiskat it had five days to provide further information before the permits would issue.

According to the judges, it left Attawapiskat with the impression the Crown saw its duty to consult as a “pro forma obligation” — a mere procedural formality.

While the judges said “there is blame on all sides,” they criticized Ontario for botching the process then peppering its legal arguments “with allegations of lack of diligence and even lack of candour.”

Yet the judges declined to cancel Juno’s permits because they said the failure was “minor” and the consultation required was ultimately “at the low end of the spectrum.”

Attawapiskat disagreed, however, arguing the drilling “is physically invasive and disruptive” and disrespects inherent Indigenous sovereignty and jurisdiction.

“The effect of Treaty 9 was to allow the Crown and settlers (Canadians) to share our land,” Nakogee wrote Guilbeault. “It did not give Canada or Ontario the right to make unilateral decisions about the how our lands and lives may be destroyed.”

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